INSIDE a dingy little factory in a provincial town in Pakistan, two young men huddle around a grinding wheel. They believe they make surgical instruments. But like many small local businesses making steel and leather goods for export, their employer has a new sideline. The nine-inch steel tubes whose ends the men assiduously smooth are actually dildos. “It’s just another piece of metal for them,” says the business owner, who picks one up to show how his more worldly customers – all overseas – can easily grasp the gleaming device.
This clandestine assembly is inevitable. That a country as conservative as Pakistan exports anal beads, gimp masks, and padlockable penis cages, among other naughty merchandise, would shock locals as much as Westerners whose hands (and other parts) end up in their hands. Finished products. hardliners, many of the companies affected do not advertise their products on their own websites. Instead, they list the naughty stuff through Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce giant that acts as a middleman for many companies in the developing world. Some officials demand bribes to allow exports to proceed. Others are simply unaware of the potential for harm from, for example, a Wartenberg Pinwheel – a spiked disc that can be passed over the skin.
The risk has so far proven to be valid. A local leather goods maker, one of 64 city-based sex toy suppliers listed on Alibaba, says only a small proportion of its sales come from fetish gear. But the company can make up to 200% profit on a perverse corset or police uniform, compared to just 25% on mundane jackets and gloves, its original business. To minimize the risk of outrage, the production lines are carefully organized, with only trusted personnel putting the tips and final studs. To those who complain that products made by the company might encourage single or gay people to fornicate – an illegal activity for both groups in Pakistan – the owner’s son has a ready-made response. “And if a homosexual wears a [normal] jacket which was also produced by us? he asks. The company doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, how customers use its products, he says.
Less flexible business people may miss an opportunity. Buoyed by the international success of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” an erotic film that was not released in Pakistan (although locals posted numerous parodies on YouTube), global sales of sex toys reached around $15 billion. dollars per year. And recent developments favor Pakistan. Local companies cannot compete with rubber toys, as the latex they would have to import from China is subject to a high tariff. But Western customers are increasingly opting for alternative materials, including metal, following reports that many Chinese toys contain a cancer-causing chemical. Back in his office, the owner of the metallurgical plant invites your correspondent to feel how gently his workers have polished a dildo. “You can use Pakistani steel for a long time,” he says approvingly. “It rusts much later than Indian or Chinese.”
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “From the Land of the Pure”